I planned my thirtieth birthday carefully. Since I come from the generation that admonished the world not to trust anyone over thirty, it seemed like a momentous occasion. I expected to spend that day and several afterwards in Paris, where I had turned twenty-one. With me I had brought a poem by Marge Piercy entitled Sign, a piece that describes a woman's first gray hair as "silver truly,/ this hair, shiny and purposeful as forceps." I felt all of this fortified me against those first intimations of age.
But my plans fell through. Instead of Paris, I spent my entire thirtieth birthday which lasted twenty-eight hours because of the time change in airports and on airplanes. With the Piercy poem held tightly in my hand, I was welcomed aboard by an ad for the in-flight movie which read "You can have anything in this world of perfect bliss except your thirtieth birthday!" The film was Logan's Run, a science fiction thriller set in a dystopia where most people were unwittingly executed at the age of thirty. Not exactly what I had in mind.
Facing mortality has not been an easy process in my life. Thirty may have been a bump on my life's path, but forty was much worse. I was depressed for months. I had repressed my fears about death and, as a result, was struck with a bad case of the blues. I learned then that out-and-out denial of mortality didn't work, although it is one our culture's favorite ways of dealing with death.
When I turned fifty, my spouse and I hosted a collective birthday bash in part to commiserate with our college friends about getting older. Tom Wood, one of those buddies, announced at the party that he would have nothing to do with the AARP (Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons) , and taunted us to do the same. Tom's teasing implied that we couldn't possibly be retirement age, we had just graduated a few years ago, we were still the young people we'd been when we first met. The subliminal message was clear: Defy your mortality.
Like my thirtieth and fortieth birthdays, that weekend get-together taught me a lot about our fears of death and how we as a culture deal with them. An effective way to stave off thoughts of our impending doom is to create a surrogate and subject it to ridicule. The AARP was a handy target. We'd all seen the ads with active seniors, traveling or enjoying the sunset while rocking on the porch. At fifty it was hard for most of us to relate to those septuagenarians with their completely gray pates. We weren't that old yet, and we certainly had no time to sit around or rock in place, what with our young children and our extremely active work schedules. It was easy to blow off the AARP and simultaneously push thoughts of death far into the background. That's a second way to deny our mortality: ridicule.
My mother-in-law demonstrated a similar tactic when she visited a few years ago. Sitting around at our house one day, she asked if I had published anything recently. I handed her my article on "Kali's Mad Dance" printed in a special issue of Of A Like Mind on the theme of death. When she finished my article, she began to read several others in the magazine, only to throw it quickly aside. Later she told me that she was surprised that a journal would dedicate a whole issue to death, adding, "I just don't dwell on it."
That's a third way to censor death to just not dwell on it, to not think about it, to simply deny death a place in our thoughts.
If we look at contemporary American culture, it's quite clear that we are a death-denying society. Death is one of our final taboos. Perhaps because we are such a secular country, death for many people in the U.S. no longer has any spiritual implications. It is the end of life, period. Only unexpected deaths occur at home, among family. Otherwise, the dying are moved away into hospitals, hospices, or nursing homes where, until quite recently, death was most fiercely denied. Death was defined as the enemy, and doctors were taught to see their role as postponing or even conquering the inevitable. In such a drama, patients ended up feeling that dying was failure, instead of a natural part of life.
In our culture, denial continues after death, when an undertaker literally retouches death's face so no one has to confront what is inevitably our own fate. Recently there seems to be a trend towards memorial services without the body or closed caskets at funerals, perhaps a more straightforward evasion of the sight of death than the cosmetic tricks of the mortician.
Whether it is the little death of rest or the final demise of the body, Western culture has a tendency to deny what Shakespeare called "that fell arrest without all bail." Dylan Thomas expresses this sentiment well when he tells us to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." From the times of the ancient Greeks, our culture has tried to reach beyond this final threshold to a kind of permanence, whether it was the immortality of song desired by Homer's heroes or the actual immortality of the Olympian gods that Heracles supposedly attained through his heroic deeds.
Neoplatonism's flight from the body during the early centuries of the first millennium further removed Western culture from an acceptance of death. Plato may have endowed us with some good ideas, but his opposition between the spiritual (Idea) and the bodily (Matter) was not one of them. Plato saw the body as mortal, chaotic and sensory and the soul as deriving more directly from the "One," a construct that was interpreted by Christian theologians as a synonym for "God." As Christianity incorporated Neoplatonism, death came to be seen as a result of human sin. Consequently, Christianity no longer accepted dying as a natural part of life, but viewed it as a state to be transcended through belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus' resurrection overcame the finality of death in Christian tradition, providing believers with salvation from both their sins and the death to which they led.
Christianity outlawed the doctrine of reincarnation in 533 CE at the Second Council of Constantinople.This creed became dogma when Christianity outlawed the doctrine of reincarnation in 533 CE at the Second Council of Constantinople. Instead of seeing dying as essential to the renewal of life, Christian theologians declared death to be absolute and final, followed by either heaven or hell eternal reward or eternal damnation. As a result, the ancient underworld changed from a place where the soul resided between lifetimes to a place of everlasting torture and punishment. Such an end must have made dying a fearful prospect, but perhaps no more fearful than complete and utter annihilation, the way most secular North Americans think of death today.
Given this cultural understanding of the end of life, repression seems like a logical coping mechanism, whether it's out-and-out denial, ridicule, or pushing death out of our thoughts. Recently I discovered another way that I repress my mortality: disregarding my doctor's orders. In the last few months, I've needed a new medication that seemed to increase my blood pressure. I also noticed that my cholesterol had been inching up over the years and had finally reached a level where it needed to be treated. My doctor recommended that I take both an anti-hypertensive drug and a statin. I balked. I didn't want to take any more drugs, a decision that seemed quite reasonable to me. So I tried to lower my blood pressure by performing qigong and a new form of meditation that involved a longer exhale than inhale. I also attempted to lower my cholesterol through dietary changes. I succeeded in decreasing my cholesterol by twenty-five points, but it was still in the danger zone. And my blood pressure remained intransigent.
When I finally decided to follow my doctor's recommendations, I got in touch with a great deal of sadness. Taking these new drugs was an admission that I was getting older, that I was less healthy than I used to be, that I was mortal. I've always thought it was strange that men visit their physicians less regularly than women and follow their doctors' orders less frequently. But I think I just went through a feminine experience of this pattern. Although I immediately made a doctor's appointment when I discovered my circulatory problems, I put off her recommendations for months because I would have to confront my mortality.
When my dad retired at the age of 54, I couldn't imagine what he would do with himself. Why would anyone want to stop being productive at such a young age, I asked myself. But now (older than he was then) I wonder if my musings then weren't a way to disconnect my 20-something self from retirement, retirement being too close to death. Was my question any less of a device for denying death than my mother-in-law's statement that she doesn't "dwell on it"?
I'm still afraid, like most people in my culture, that underneath the busy surface of my life, there is nothing, there is only death, and it's final.When I look squarely at this question I have to answer that I'm still afraid, like most people in my culture, that underneath the busy surface of my life, there is nothing, there is only death, and it's final. And this despite the fact that my religion Wicca solemnizes death and believes it to be the gateway to rebirth. Lately I've been looking to other cultures for possible answers to life's big questions. When it comes to death, there are many countries that do a better job than we do. Most African societies face death directly, and even celebrate it in their rituals. In Yoruba tradition, for instance, libations are poured for dead ancestors, and ancestor worship makes up a large part of Yoruban religion. In fact, veneration of departed family members is practically ubiquitous throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of the Zulu people, for instance, most religious activity is based on homage for one's forebears.
Many other indigenous cultures venerate ancestral spirits as well. American Indians of both North and South America not only esteem their elders, but also honor their predecessors as an integral part of their social and religious lives. Within Buddhism and Hinduism, ancestor worship constitutes an essential means of ridding the present generation of its negative karma as well as that of its forebears. Any merit accrued during a person's lifetime is shared with his or her predecessors so that they will move closer to enlightenment and bless the living in turn.
In the Far East where the extended family is central to the life of society, veneration of forebears serves the function of reminding the living of their place in life and their responsibilities to family members both alive and dead. In China ancestor worship is the single most significant religious activity, while in Japan, Korea, Thailand and Viet Nam, reverence for one's ancestors is also extremely important.
And within Hinduism, there is the example of Kali. As the goddess of life, death and rebirth, Kali is usually depicted as a dark-faced, voracious cannibal dancing in the cremation grounds while holding a sword, a severed head, a bowl of blood and a noose in her four hands. Hinduism's world mother exemplifies the fact that life often creates through destroying, just as we humans recreate our bodies anew each day by destroying the plants and animals on which we feed. What Kali vividly demonstrates is that we live in a unified ecosystem, the interconnected web of all existence, each a part of the other. Her image forces us to confront our place in the food chain. Kali gives birth to us; we are sustained by eating her other children; and finally we are eaten in turn. Life feeds on life. Life is a sacrifice to life. These are the sacred truths that such a picture opens to our view.
It is no surprise to me that in India people acknowledge death as an inevitable part of life. I never realized how sheltered I had been from the sight of death in the U.S. until in India I saw two dozen vultures and a half dozen dogs fighting over the carcass of a dead cow. Life and death are florid in their display in a country two-thirds the size of the U.S. with over four times as many inhabitants. In such a country it is obvious that life and death are intimately intertwined; Indians see their mutual effects everyday. It seems short-sighted to them to focus, as we do, on life and growth, ignoring death and decay.
Now that I am nearing sixty, I find myself drawn to Kali and to what she represents for the same reasons that I couldn't face death earlier in this decade. I have found a paradoxical freedom in accepting this ultimate limitation in my life. It has spurred me on to enjoy life moment by moment.
In many ways my attitude is like the Epicurean motto "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Most people in the twenty-first century interpret this sentiment as a hedonistic and, therefore, non-spiritual response to mortality. But in truth, living in the moment is highly spiritual, more like "praying without ceasing" than drunken revelry. For to live in the charged atmosphere of the present is to feel gratitude for the blessing of life.
Looking death square in the face gives me the courage to be more childlike, delighting in the awe and wonder that life presents to me everyday.When I am fully present in the here and now, I open my senses wide to the world I notice the play of light on a forested path, feel the soft humidity on my skin in the summer or the crisp fall air when the season finally turns, smell the sweet and acrid perfume of a late fall day, notice the stark contrasts in a winter landscape, or hear the returning warblers in the spring. Confronting death allows me to take in more of the world than I do with my typical adult attitudes based on norms and propriety and ultimately on fear. Looking death square in the face gives me the courage to be more childlike, delighting in the awe and wonder that life presents to me everyday.
Once I've faced my fear of death, I can say, "Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave where is thy victory?" When I've met my biggest (and most realistic) fear head-on, why should I care about my smaller fears any longer? So what if the neighbors think I'm crazy once in a while or if people can't deal with my exuberance at times? When I'm flowing with life's pulse, in Kali's mad dance, I celebrate it moment by moment. Her ancient hymn to life and death opens me to spontaneity and frees me from fear. Then I can plunge into life awake, alive, in awe, with my heart open and finally take those exciting risks I've been putting off for far too long.